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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Car Bombers Strike Turkish Synagogues

ISTANBUL, Turkey -- Car bombs exploded outside two Istanbul synagogues, killing at least 20 people -- most of them Muslim passers-by -- in simultaneous attacks on Jewish worshipers celebrating the Sabbath on Saturday.

Turkish officials said the al-Qaida terror network might have had a hand in the blasts, which wrecked cars and buildings over wide areas surrounding the heavily protected temples.

Istanbul police officials said at least 20 people had died and 303 were reported wounded in the attacks which happened around 9:30 a.m.

"This is a terrorist event with international links," Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said as emergency services struggled to treat the victims.

People with cuts and bloodied clothing stumbled through smoke-filled streets in a daze as local tradesmen worked alongside rescue workers to comb the rubble for survivors.

Interior Minister Abdulkadir Aksu said he could not rule out a role by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, blamed for attacks on other Jewish targets in other countries in the past 18 months.

"In both cases, vans were driven by the attackers towards their targets. We believe they contained the same kind of explosives, they're the same kind of terror attacks," Aksu said.

A radical Turkish Islamist group said it was behind the attacks, which police officers at the scene earlier said had together killed 24 people. Officials dismissed the group's claim.

Predominantly Muslim Turkey is a key NATO ally of the United States. It recently offered to send troops to help secure neighboring Iraq, though it later abandoned the plan due to strong opposition from Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council.

Turkey, which has a long history of homegrown political violence, has warm relations with Israel.

U.S. President George W. Bush called Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to express his sympathy and pledged to help Ankara "respond to the heinous act of terror."

Eleven Muslims were killed outside the Neve Shalom -- "Oasis of Peace" -- synagogue, Istanbul's largest and the focus of worship for its 25,000 Jews, a Jewish Agency worker said.

It was packed for a bar mitzvah coming of age ceremony but, miraculously, no one inside died, Aksu said.

"They may have wanted to kill Jews, but they killed Muslims. How can this happen here, in Istanbul? This is not a war zone," said Sinan Demir, who suffered cuts from falling glass.

Nine Jews were killed at the Beit Israel temple in the city's Sisli district, the Jewish Agency worker said. Turkish officials said a policeman also died at the scene. No Israeli citizens were reported killed, the Israeli embassy said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was due in Istanbul early on Sunday. Officials from the Israeli intelligence service Mossad are also set to arrive in Turkey's largest city, said one security source.

Turkish Islamist group the Islamic Great Eastern Raiders/Front, which is widely believed to be backed by Iran, claimed responsibility to the semiofficial Anatolia news agency.